Cutie Pies and Deadly Lies – Addison Moore

I see dead people. Okay, so I don’t see dead people—at least not on the regular—I see dead pets. Yes, pets. At first, I had no idea what these hologram-like beasts were up to until after an unfortunate run of something akin to trial and error that I concluded each dead pet was some sort of a harbinger for its previous owner, a very, very bad omen if you will. Sometimes I see them floating around willy-nilly in a crowd and it’s hard to decipher exactly who the bad luck is coming for. But on occasion, I see them attached firmly to the side of whoever the incoming disaster is set to strike. I’m not sure why this is my lot in life. In fact, my lot in life hasn’t been so stellar in general. My birth mother thought it was a brilliant idea to leave me on the floor of a firehouse, and that’s where a brave and thankfully curious firefighter spotted me, waddled up and squirming. It just so happens that I was adopted by that sweet man, Joseph Lemon, and his wife, Miranda, and gifted a book-loving big sister, Lainey, currently Honey Hollow’s lead librarian, as well as a feisty and shenanigan-prone younger sister, Meg, who is also known as Madge the Badge on the Las Vegas female wrestling circuit. And being that Las Vegas and all of its glittery wrestling venues are a good distance from Honey Hollow, Vermont, we don’t see her very often. But back to that strange gift of mine, or curse as it more often than not feels like—I have zero clue where it came from or why, or even the major significance of it. A part of me has always believed that something alarmingly supernatural occurred around the time of my birth, and that’s exactly why my birth mama decided she so desperately needed to offload a seven-pound chunk of bad luck. The very first time I put the furry-dearly-departed and outright chaos together was when I was seven and I saw the flicker of a barely-there turtle swimming next to Otis Fisher’s ear. Later that day, Otis fell from a tree and broke his arm.

At the time, I wasn’t too sorry about it either. That boy had a mad hankering for pulling on my pigtails. And as fate would have it, the boy who lived to tease me, one day admitted to having a mad crush on yours truly. And post that amorous admission we dated on and off for about three years. If I thought that boy was annoying in elementary school, he outdid himself in high school. In fact, Otis—or Bear as he’s affectionately known around these parts for having once chased off a black bear before it could invade and devour an entire herd of innocent tourists who were on a leaf peeping tour—is one of the reasons I left Honey Hollow to begin. No sooner did my high school diploma cool off than I hightailed it to New York—Columbia University to be exact—where I’ve had the displeasure to ogle other people’s dead pets. I’m quick to push what I’ve affectionately dubbed the New York Disaster out of my mind as I take a step outside of my apartment. It’s a duplex, actually, and my landlords, the Simonson sisters, live upstairs. They’re the primary reason I’m headed out on this unforgivably crisp September morning wearing my Sunday best, even though it’s smack in the middle of the week, Wednesday.

Usually, I’d be happily snug in my favorite jeans, sporting my comfiest sweatshirt with my hair in a ponytail, and on my way to the Honey Pot Diner where I’m currently employed as the chief baker, not that there’s anyone baking underneath me but, hey, I like the title. Instead, I’m stuffed in a pencil skirt, two sizes too small, and a blouse that looks as if I swiped it off a mannequin at Goodwill, partially because I did. Okay, so I don’t own many Sunday clothes per se, but only because the local church is all about casual attire. They’re far more concerned with keeping your soul free from the flames than they are about your accruements, but I digress. I’m not headed to work or any holy house in the great state of Vermont. I’m headed to court—small claims court to be exact—all the way over in Ashford County. Just as I’m about to head to my beat-up old hatchback, I spot both the aforementioned Simonson sisters at the foot of the driveway squabbling amongst themselves about who knows what—most likely me. It is me they’re hauling to court after all, and over something completely ridiculous. It just so happens that last summer at the county fair my blueberry buckle pie won the coveted blue ribbon in its division, and it seemed as if all of Ashford County were thrilled for me, at least all of the townsfolk here in Honey Hollow. But the Simonson sisters were decidedly not enthused in the least.

Sometime between the taste test and the judging, someone edited my entry to read Simple Simonson Pie and crossed out the all-important part about the blueberry buckle. Regretfully, a riot of laughter ensued, mostly from the fine, and, might I add, intuitive folk here in Honey Hollow, but I swear on all that is holy that good time only lasted about three thrilling minutes before I made the correction. Although, to hear Mora Anne and Merilee tell it, the aftermath not only bruised their egos and reputation but managed to cause a retail apocalypse down at the shop they own and run. It turns out, The Busy Bee Craft Shop was short on patrons and dollar bills alike and had a difficult time paying its rent last month, so the only logical solution they could come up with was to sue me for every last red cent. Both sisters are dressed head to toe in long velvet coats with ruffled shirts peeking out from underneath like a couple of throwbacks from some long-forgotten steampunk era. It’s eerie the way they choose to dress alike each and every day despite the fact they’ve been on the planet for twenty-six long years—and twenty-seven respectively. I know this because I happen to be the exact same age as Merilee. We’ve all grown up together, but the way they treat me you’d think they were my bitter and scorned elders. Merilee snarls as if she were rabid. “Well, look who’s here? If it isn’t Honey Hollow’s favorite jester who will soon be performing live in court.

” Those narrow slits she calls eyes light up like cauldrons. The sisters have always held a witchy appeal to me, what with their long, dark, stringy hair and bony, long fingers. The fact they look as if they suck on lemons day and night doesn’t exactly help their plight. “Are you ready to have your bank account turned inside out?” I scoff at the thought. If they think this is the day they hit a financial jackpot, they’d better think again. Working shifts at the Honey Pot Diner doesn’t afford me much of a bank account. The only thing in my savings at the moment is enough to cover my rent and Pancake’s Fancy Beast cat food. I’ve had Pancake now for over a year, and he officially qualifies as the greatest love of my life. I glance over to the living room window where he’s currently monitoring the situation while licking his paw. Pancake is a butter yellow Himalayan with a rusty-tipped tail and dart of a line running between his eyes.

He is a precious little angel now that he’s no longer using my leather ottoman as a scratching post and chewing down all the cables and cords he could get his hungry little paws on. The entire apartment has been catproofed, and Pancake hasn’t forgiven me yet. An icy breeze picks up and the row of liquid ambers and maples that lines the street shed the first smattering of red and gold fall leaves. I steal a moment to take in the glory of nature on full display around the two wicked witches determined to make my life a living hell. Our little corner of Vermont has a habit of turning into a golden and ruby wonderland this time of year, so much so that the leaf peeping keeps the tourists coming in strong right up until winter. Speaking of tourist traps, the Honey Hollow Apple Festival is coming up later this month, and I’ve been asked to supply the pies for the occasion. After my shift was over at the Honey Pot last night, I baked two dozen personal-sized caramel apple pies—cutie pies as I like to call them—and I need to deliver them straight to the orchard this afternoon because the owners requested a sample for their employees. My guess is they want to be sure my baking skills are up to snuff before they live to regret the decision come the day of the festival. But I guarantee they’ll far from regret it. In fact, the only thing they might regret is not ordering enough to keep up with demand.

It took me weeks to perfect the right combination of caramel and spices, and I even threw in a handful of crushed walnuts into each tiny pie to give it a little crunch. But it’s that buttery caramel that steals the limelight from those golden delicious apples. It’s so smooth and creamy, my best friend Keelie and I spent an hour last night licking the bowls clean ourselves. I can’t help but sigh over at the two beady-eyed siblings who relish my financial undoing. “I won’t be having my bank account turned in any direction this morning because there isn’t a judge on this planet who would side with—” I’m about to lay into the Simonson sisters with every colorful word in my lexicon when something akin to a flame flickers around Merilee’s ankle. For a brief and fleeting moment, I think it’s simply a stray leaf, but suddenly that flicker materializes into the clear outline of a long-lost, dearly departed orange tabby that I’m guessing once belonged to one of the shrews before me. “Ha!” Mora Anne scoffs as she takes a step in close. “She can’t finish the sentence because she knows she’s guilty. Just admit it and whip out your checkbook. Save us all the trouble of driving to Ashford.

We’re meeting with Darlene Grand this afternoon to secure a booth for the festival. We don’t have a lot of time to dilly-dally with you over a handful of change. Hand it over right now and we can all get on with our day.” I take a moment to scowl at the surly sisters. Since when is three thousand eight hundred dollars a handful of change? And if it’s so darn piddly, why bother to sue me to begin with? The ghostly cat twirls around Merilee’s left foot before pausing to look up at me, and I would bet my life that feisty feline just smiled. The pets I see are never skeletal or gruesomely decomposing but clear as vellum versions of themselves in their plush and fluffy prime. On the rare occasion, I do see a once-upon-a-person, but neither the pets nor the people breathe a single word to me. I’m guessing the lack of vocal cords has something to do with it. And, believe you me, I am more than grateful. I’ve only confided my strange gift to one person, and she wasn’t family at that.

Nell Sawyer is my best friend’s grandmother, and she might as well be mine. She’s been that kind to me. If my mother knew about my morbid third eye, she would tie me to a stake and light the flames just trying to usher the dark side out of me. And, well, considering the fact my mother has a way of spreading an errant word around town—you would think she were aspiring to be the biggest gossip Honey Hollow has ever seen—I’m not too sorry I’ve never broached the subject with her. But Nell seemed as understanding as she was intrigued, not one ounce of judgment spilled over from that woman. I’m not sure why I told Nell and not my sisters, or Keelie, Nell’s granddaughter and my BFF, but something about Nell’s sweet round face has the power to pull even the darkest secret from my soul. “What’s the matter?” Merilee chides with a bony hand set over an equally bony hip. “Cat got your tongue?” I glance down at the curious cute little kitty. “Yes, as a matter of fact, it does. I’m guessing luck is on my side today.

” And not yours, I want to say. “I’ll see you ladies in court.” I bite down a smile as I give one last look to the tiny poltergeist licking its ghostly paws. Who knows? Maybe Merilee will trip on the courthouse stairs—and if she does, I hope to see it. Aw heck, maybe she’ll skin a knee. Chapter 2 A shford County is less than twenty minutes down the highway, and unlike Honey Hollow with its houses tucked against the evergreens, Ashford is more of your urban sprawl, complete with a few high-rises downtown and a nice little brick building next to the courthouse that reads World’s Best Coffee. And seeing that I have a few minutes to spare, I make a beeline toward that java-laden establishment in hopes to give me the proper energy I’ll need to see me through this inglorious day. But as horrible as getting called to court may be, it’s the furthest thing from my scattered mind at the moment. I just can’t seem to get over those caramel apple pies waiting for me back at the Honey Pot Diner. I whipped up a few extra so Keelie and the rest of the staff could indulge in the ooey gooey good— No sooner do I round the corner from the parking structure to the coffee shop than a brick wall of a body crashes into mine.

“Oh!” I cry as my purse goes flying as does his briefcase, only to clash all on their own before exploding like a paper filled and blessed by Sephora’s finest offerings piñata. A plethora of office supplies and lipsticks rain down over us—in my defense, I had no idea what shade of red went best with a not guilty plea, thus the half dozen or so tubes of MAC pelting us like lethargic bullets. “I’m so sorry!” I pant over the dark-haired man with the body of a linebacker already busy scooping up his files posthaste. “No, it’s fine, really,” he grumbles as if it were anything but. “It’s not fine. I was so wrapped up thinking about caramel”—I quickly join him in scooping up the eight by ten slices of what feels like an entire Canadian forest sprawled at our feet—“and once I dive deep into the caramel apple pie corner of my mind, I may as well be on another planet entirely.” A tube of lipstick begins to roll toward the gutter, and instinctively I dive over it, slapping it into submission with the palm of my hand. I may not mind secondhand clothes, but I’ve invested enough into my face to warrant a second car at this point. Nary a lipstick shall be lost on my watch. I jerk my head up abruptly, and the top of my head hits him in the fun zone a little too hard.

“Geez,” he howls out in pain as he hobbles backward, protectively cupping his man parts while proceeding to straddle me awkwardly in the process. “Dear heavens,” I pant, struggling to rise and accidentally giving him an inadvertent piggyback ride in the process. “Oh my God,” I cry as my back begs to cave in from the weight of his body. “Hang on.” His voice rises in an unnatural way as if he were in fact speaking to a horse. Dear Lord. Kill me. Here I am in the middle of downtown Ashford showing a grown man a bucking bronco of a good time. “Let’s try this another way,” I say, dropping flat onto my stomach, and off he rockets, stumbling forward toward a dogwood bush and—oh no, his suit is far too nice to be embellished with twigs. I grab onto his ankles, and he falls face-first into the border garden, his head and torso buried at least a foot deep in lavender hyacinths.

Okay, so holding onto his ankles wasn’t the brainstorm I had thought it would be. “What the hell did you do that for?” he barks, struggling to right himself. “Oh dear!” I stagger halfway up just as he backs out and pegs me in the forehead with his rock-hard behind and lands me flat on my back, knocking the wind right out of me. “God Almighty,” he grunts, offering me a hand and, soon enough, we’re both back on our feet, face to scowling face. His hair is mussed and wild. His eyes are nothing but two irate blue flames, scalding me with their hatred. “I’m so sorry,” I say, my lips quivering as if I were about to cry. My head is pounding, and I feel as if I just crawled through a trench on the front lines, only to make it out halfalive. “I’m sorry I ever got out of bed this morning.” He rakes his fingers through his hair, and it’s quickly becoming evident not only did I take down a well-dressed man but I took down an abnormally handsome one at that.

He’s smooth skinned, just the right amount of stubble peppering his face, and he looks as if he’s got a half-decade on me at least. “My name is Lottie Lemon, and if you don’t mind, I’d love to buy you a cup of coffee for the trouble.” It’s the least I could do after giving the front and back of his crotch such an enthusiastic hello with my face of all things. Gah! Once I reiterate this entire fiasco to Keelie, I’m sure this day will go down in infamy as my most proficient foray in testosterone sciences. “No,” he says, heading toward the coffee shop, and I don’t hesitate to whiz right next to him, suddenly thrown for a loop because I happened to have thought the shop was in the other direction. That might just be why we bumped into one another so violently. “What do you mean no?” I say, zipping inside as he holds the door open for me and scuttling into the line. “Is that some kind of male machismo thing? Like you can’t have a woman buy a cup of coffee for you because it might stick a pin in your ego? Because I’m pretty sure the world has moved well past that point, and I promise you won’t suddenly have the need to use a feminine hygiene product just because someone with slightly more estrogen happened to spring for your cup of morning joe. You do realize that men and women are comprised of both estrogen and testosterone. In fact, at about the age of seventy, we equal out as far as the aforementioned hormones go, and there’s not a lot of gender difference hormonally speaking at that point.

But, chances are, I won’t be standing next to you to buy that cup of coffee for you when you hit the big seven zero— so, if I were you, I’d take me up on my free latte right now in the present.” I step up to the barista waiting to take my order and nod over at him. “I’m buying for the two of us.” “I said no.” His eyes slit to nothing. As if my little Kung Fu takedown outside didn’t infuriate him enough—my offer to make all of his java dreams come true has him wanting to rocket through the roof with that briefcase he’s clutching as if it had nuclear codes inside of it. “Fine.” I put in my order and pay. And as soon as the barista asks for my name, I say it loud and proud. “L-O-T-T-I-E”—I turn back at the aggressively handsome, aggressively angry well-suited man and smile—“It’s Lottie.

I’m sorry. I didn’t get your name.” “I didn’t give it.” His lips twitch in the right direction, but there’s not a hint of a smile. So irritating. I step aside as he puts in his order, keeping an ear open to hear his name once he shouts it over the counter. I just had an impromptu meet and greet with that man’s family jewels and had his backside give me a spontaneous high-five over the forehead. I’m not leaving this establishment until I at least get his initials. But as fate, or my luck as it were, would have it, the barista doesn’t ask. She simply flirts and giggles in his presence as I’m sure women and girls alike are prone to do.

My guess is he’s a regular anyways. As soon as my drink is ready, I take my time near the creamers, rearrange the straws and the napkins until his cup lands on the pick-up counter, and then I see it in black and white but don’t believe it. I tiptoe over on the balls of my feet, and my mouth falls open as he scoops it up with pride. He flexes the cup my way so I can get a better look. “Mr. Sexy ?” I flatline. Gone is the apologetic schoolgirl and come to stay is the hardened-by-life New Yorker that took up residence in me during my short tenure there. Every now and again she likes to make a reprisal and, believe you me, she’s a barrel of FU-N. “That’s right.” He gives a subtle wink as he makes his way to the door.

“Do yourself and everyone else a favor and watch where you’re going, would you? You could walk into a real disaster if you’re not careful.” A gasp gets locked in my throat, and I choke on a half a dozen comebacks. “You watch where you’re going! And if I were you, I’d consider investing in a jock strap!” Okay, so that’s not how I envisioned that would go, but, for whatever it’s worth, it felt good to take down his ego a notch. The barista and—come to think of it—just about every other patron in the establishment is ogling at me as if I just told off the Almighty Himself. I avert my eyes at the thought. I bet that man was nothing more than some nine-tofive pencil pusher ready to submit to his cubicle prison cell. He’s got a sentence of roughly forty years, and I can’t say I feel too sorry for him. I head out the door and up the steps to the Ashford County Courthouse. Mr. Sexy.

I’ve got another name for him, and it’s not nearly as generous. * * * The inside of the Ashford County Courthouse is stunningly opulent with marble flooring, brass hardware, and fixtures. The walls of this particular courtroom they’ve ushered me into are covered in wood paneling, richly dark and textured like a Hershey’s bar. My mind drifts right back to those mouthwatering cutie pies waiting to be delivered to the orchard this afternoon, and I moan at how decadent they are. There is nothing like a caramel apple on a crisp fall day. There’s just something about the buttery caramel sauce, the way the sugar slightly burns my tongue that leaves me wanting more. Mora Anne coughs and pulls me out of my caramel spell as both sisters sneer at me from the opposite side of the room. In front of us sits what looks to be a judicial altar with an oversized leather chair waiting for the judge to fill it. The bailiff stands proud at the front of the room, a skinny rail of a man with a nightstick and a scowl. I can’t help but scowl myself.

I’ve never had much luck with men, and this morning has certainly been no different. Here’s hoping for a female judge. He thumps his hands together. “All rise for the Honorable Essex Everett Baxter. Judge Harris is currently unavailable, and he will be filling in for the interim.” Essex? That definitely sounds like a man. An old cranky one. Really, universe? Were a couple of ovaries too much to ask for? I shoot Mora Anne and Merilee the side-eye for dragging us all to court this morning, including the Honorable Judge Essex Everett Baxter. I happened to overhear the clerk out front tell the bailiff we were the only case today. If it weren’t for those greedy, albeit delusional sisters, we could have all joined Judge Harris for a day off from court.

Mora Anne’s mouth falls open, as does her sister’s on cue, their gazes both set dead ahead. I glance forward and do a double take as the man in the black robe climbs the stairs and takes a seat. “Holy SpaghettiOs,” I whisper as I take him in. “Essex?” I blurt without meaning to. “That’s what Mr. Sexy stands for?” The entire room seems to shut down for three solid seconds before the bailiff responds. “Enough—or you’ll be found in contempt. Only speak when spoken to and do not interrupt the judge or the plaintiff while they speak their peace.” Mr. Sexy, aka Judge Baxter, picks his own jaw up off the floor.

His eyes remain sealed over mine for an undue amount of time, and I can’t help but feel a little smugly satisfied by the fact. Those uptight Simonson sisters are probably deducing far more lascivious reasons that have caused me to garner his handsome as all hell attention, and I can’t say I’m too displeased. But I know the real lowdown. Those aren’t beams of lust he’s shooting my way. More like distrust. Dare I say contempt. “Good morning,” he growls my way before nodding over to Mora Anne and Merilee as well. At least he’s an equal opportunity offender as far as his curt demeanor goes. No wonder he didn’t have a friendly bone in his body. Law school must have roughed him up just right to land him in that supreme position.

A judge. Huh. Never would have guessed. He seems a bit young for the position, but I’m guessing he’s plenty old enough to wield that gavel. For a brief moment, I envision him on top of me once again, our noses touching, our lips within firing distance… He clears his throat as if he were privy to my quasi-lude thoughts. “Which one of you is Merilee Simonson?” Merilee raises a hand and with good reason. Essex Everett Baxter may be every bit as scrumptious as that coffee cup suggested, but he is as intimidating as a tidal wave. He nods. “Okay, you go ahead and tell me what your case is about.” Merilee squares her shoulders.

“This case is about the failure to pay my rent on a business my sister and I own to the tune of three thousand eight hundred dollars. You see, the defendant here has made a habit of defaming my sister and me about town—” She pauses a moment to glare at me and a million words beg to trickle from my throat, but Mr. Sexy gives me that don’t you dare look in his eyes, same one he gave me after I introduced myself to him by way of my forehead this morning, so I don’t say a word. “Nevertheless, she went too far last July during the county fair here in Ashford and changed the name of her questionably edible dessert from blueberry buckle to Simple Simonson and turned both my sister and me into a laughing stock.” Mora Anne pumps her fist. “And nobody has set foot in our shop ever since.” Judge Baxter looks decidedly unimpressed with her outburst. “I’m guessing you’re the sister?” “That’s it?” I balk. “You’re not tossing her in the pokey and throwing away the key? I was assured by your kind bailiff that if I were to have that kind of an outburst—” His gavel slams over the marble countertop and rings out like a gunshot. “You would be in contempt and, believe me, I’m still considering it,” he riots out the words as if I just threatened to set the room on fire.

There it is. It’s official. He hates me. I might as well pull out my checkbook right now and save everyone the trouble. “Now”—he thunders as he shifts his fire and brimstone attention to the Simonson sisters—“do either of you have physical proof that Ms.”— he glances down at his paperwork—“Carlotta Kenzie Lemon—” “Lottie Lemon.” I keep it short and sweet and make a zipping motion over my lips before throwing away the imaginary key. I’m sure that right about now he’d like to replace it with a real one. “Yes,” he grumbles, still glaring. No smile.

This man is harder to crack than a concrete egg. He takes a deep breath, which I’m guessing is more based on exasperation than it is necessity, before looking back to the Simonson sisters. “Do you have proof that Ms. Lemon instructed your patrons to bypass your business?” “Yes!” Mora Anne holds her phone out. “I took a picture of the sign myself.” The bailiff takes the phone and hands it to the judge who seems to scowl at it as he seemingly does everything else. “I see.” The phone makes its way back to its rightful owner as Judge Baxter continues to glare at the three of us. “Ms. Simonson.

” He nods to them both. “Is there any other evidence either of you would like to present?” Merilee leans in. “I have security footage of an empty store that runs a month straight. That woman singlehandedly dismantled years of good faith relations with the townspeople of Honey Hollow.” The good yet ornery judge closes his eyes a moment too long, a sure sign he’s about had enough from all of us. He looks my way and nods. “Let’s hear what you have to say for yourself, Ms. Lemon.” “I—” for the life of me I can’t seem to put two words together. I’m momentarily both vexed and fascinated by his handsome face, that stubble, and those heated blue eyes.

“I think that this is all a load of malarkey.” Bullcrap is more like it, but who knows where that quasi-salty word might land me. “I swear under oath and on a stack of Bibles that I wasn’t the one who crossed out the words blueberry buckle. Nor did I alter in any way the name of the dessert I toiled over. It took me four months to perfect that recipe. And, I also swear on all that is holy that I don’t have a clue who wrote the words Simple Simonson on that index card. I’m innocent, Your Honor. This is all a very bad mix-up. And, as you might be well aware, I’m pretty good at getting myself in a tangle or two.” His eyes widen a notch just as a thought comes to me.

“Hey, wait a minute.” I turn to the spoiled sisters and their gnarled expressions. “I happen to work across the street at the Honey Pot Diner, so I guess you could say I’m privy to the foot traffic on Main Street. If you say you’ve lost all of your customers due to the fact I’ve poisoned all of Honey Hollow against you, how do you explain the fact that you haven’t had a single tourist stop by?” I turn my attention to those startling blue eyes. “I say this, Your Honor, because the only thing keeping the cogs in our wheels turning down on Main Street is the change that lines those tourists’ pockets. If they have footage that proves their store has been empty for a month, well, I’ve had nothing to do with the fact the tourists aren’t pouring in like they used to—just like I don’t have anything to do with the fact the residents have fled the scene. I’m innocent, and this is all a load of pot-crockery that’s wasting your valuable time and mine. I don’t think I should pay them a single dime.” He smacks his lips. “The commentary at the end was completely unnecessary.

” He turns to the sisters. “Normally, this is where I would pause to consider the facts, make up my mind, and deliver a judgment. But since the fact this case is solely built on slander— and absolutely no proof that the defendant caused it to begin with, your entire case rests on hearsay and speculation. This case is dismissed. Ms. Lemon, you are absolved from the accusations.” I suck in a quick breath and clap, silently yet enthusiastically. “Thank you,” I say and give an awkward wave as he abandons his post. Mora Anne and Merilee head over, sour-faced, tight-lipped, and beady-eyed. I can feel their wrath as sure as a furnace.

“Isn’t that nice?” Mora Anne’s lips expand like a rubber band. “Make cute with the judge and, sure enough, he sides right along with you.” Merilee sniffs my way. “Well, you can start packing.” She hands me a thin vanilla envelope. “This is your official eviction notice.” “I’m being evicted? On what grounds?” Need I ask? Really? “Our cousin is moving in the first of October.” “But that’s in less than three weeks. Where will I go?” “That’s not our problem.” Mora Anne giggles as they exit, and for the first time since I’ve known her, it seemed genuine.

Figures. It takes a full five minutes, and the pointing finger of the bailiff for me to find the exit. The marbled hall is empty save for the laughter of a female and the murmurings of a man, and just as I’m about to round the corner to leave, I bump into Judge Baxter, although far less violently than before. “Geez.” He takes a full step back and holds an arm over his lady friend as if to shield her from my gravitational pull. Probably a smart maneuver on his part. “Thank you once again, Mr. Sex—um, Essex, or um, Judge Baxter,” I say sheepishly before glancing to the sleek and polished brunette by his side. She’s wearing a royal blue power suit, and those heels she’s walking on have to be at least six inches tall. My own feet hurt just looking at them.

Her face is smooth and heavily made up as if she just had a professional airbrush her into oblivion. Her lips are understated, not a garish shade of red in sight, and yet that shade of judgment in her eyes isn’t exactly appealing. He offers a curt nod. “You’re welcome. And it’s Everett. I go by Everett. I don’t expect to see you on the inside of my courtroom again, Ms. Lemon.” “Oh, you won’t—Everett. In fact, if you’re lucky, you won’t see me at all, ever again!” A tiny twinge lives and dies deep in my belly as if it mourned the fact.

He frowns at the thought. “Have a good day. And, please, for your own sake, watch your step.” Both he and the brunette are careful to make their way around me as she giggles against his shoulder. “Essex, what’s this Everett business? Don’t you ever con me into calling you that.” “I think you know just what to call me and when,” he growls back with a dark laugh of his own. I clear my throat and wave until I’ve managed to garner his attention once again. “Essex, Mr. Sexy, Everett, Judge Hard-as-Flint, whoever you are—I’m glad you were in that courtroom today.” Both he and his paramour go slack-jawed before taking off once again.

“Too bad you don’t have the ability to straighten out the rest of my life,” I whisper, mostly to myself. “I’m so steaming mad at Mora Anne and Merilee I could wring their necks.” Everett turns around and glances my way before they disappear down the hall. And to think Merilee didn’t have the courtesy to skin a knee. The day is young yet.

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